Author-Illustrator Feature: Grace Lin

Grace Lin is the creator of several picture books for children, including Robert’s Snow (Viking, 2004) and Dim Sum For Everyone! (Knopf, 2001). This month she celebrates the release of her debut novel, The Year of the Dog (Little Brown, 2006). Grace also offers one of the most beautifully designed and informative author-illustrator sites on the Web. Be sure to visit her online for more information!

What training prepared you to be a children’s book illustrator? Have you done other illustration work?

I have a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in illustration; and I was a bookseller at children’s book store, Curious George Goes to Wordsworth, which actually taught me more about children’s books than my college education…

I’ve done other types of illustration (Seventeen Magazine, Nickelodeon, etc.), mainly earlier on in my career. People told me you couldn’t make enough money to live off of doing children’s books, so in the beginning I attempted to find work in all the illustrations fields–editorial, giftware, etc.

It was only when I focused on books, what I loved, that I found success (and I do make a living off of it, thank you!).

Why did you decide to write and illustrate children’s books?

I always had a love of books and stories since childhood. This is something I’ve always wanted to do.

What was your path to publication and its timeline?

After I graduated from RISD, I sent millions of samples with minimal responses. One of the few responses was from an Assistant Editor at Orchard books, Harold Underdown.

A year and a half later (while I was still toiling away, depressed at my lack of publishing credits), Harold became the Senior Editor at Charlesbridge Publishing and contacted me. He asked if I had any stories to go with my illustrations and even though I didn’t, I said yes! I was desperate to get any kind of foot in the door and wasn’t going to let any opportunity slip. I quickly started writing.

The story I wrote was, The Ugly Vegetables (Charlesbridge, 1999) and, after a couple of revisions, it became my first book. So that was three years after graduation.

How does your heritage inspire/influence your work?

I grew up in Upstate New York where there were few minorities, especially Asian. My parents wanted us to blend; they wanted us to grow up really “American” and made the decision to speak to us only in English. So, my sisters and I grew up very Americanized. There were always subtle differences, like Chinese food or red envelopes, but most of the time we glossed over them.

A lot of my books deal with Chinese culture because, in a way, I’m trying to find the culture I lost. When I was younger, I was ashamed or sometimes even angry about being Chinese. Most of the time I forgot that I was Chinese. Sometimes I would see myself in the mirror and be surprised to see a Chinese girl looking back at me.

It’s only now, after becoming an adult and I realized that there was something I lost, ignoring these parts of my heritage. There were a lot of things that we did, traditions like eating ginger soup at a baby shower, which I never bothered to learn more about. So now, I research these kinds of things about my heritage. I’m making the books I missed when I was younger.

Do you do school visits, and if so, what kind of programs do you offer? How can planners contact you?

I have a variety of programs. Usually I do “How a Book is Made” an interactive presentation that explains the steps of publishing to the students. This also includes a book reading, drawing and Q&A session. Sometimes I do slide lectures (usually for adults) about being a multicultural author-illustrator and/or my path of publications. Other times I do a craft workshop with the kids, something inspired by my books (for example, kite making with my book Kite Flying (Knopf, 2002)). You can see all my suggested curriculum at my website:

Planners can contact my manager/sister Alice at

Could you briefly tell us about each of your picture books and what inspired them?

All of my books have some sort real-life inspiration. The Ugly Vegetables was based on the memories I had of my mother growing Chinese vegetables. Dim Sum For Everyone! is based on memories of my family eating dim sum in Chinatown. Robert’s Snow, was written when my husband Robert wasn’t allowed out in the snow–just like the mouse in the book.

How about your latest book, The Year of the Dog?

My newest and first novel, The Year of the Dog, is almost a memoir. It features my family, our family stories and memories-though a bit fictionalized. On my new-and-improved website, you can see “behind the story” of the book where I post photos of the real parts.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The Year of the Dog began as a sequel to my book The Ugly Vegetables. However, as I began to write, the book would just not fit in a picture book format. There were so many memories–funny stories that needed to be told, poignant stories that couldn’t be left out, family stories that insisted on being written… They just couldn’t be contained in 32 pages.

Finally, I realized that it wanted to be a novel and let it become The Year of the Dog. It took me only five years to come to this conclusion. But once I let it happen, things moved fairly quickly.

I brought the first rough draft of the novel to Kindling Words in January of 2004. My good friend Alvina Ling, who is an editor at Little Brown, read it. We have been friends since childhood (she was a bridesmaid at my wedding) and are coincidentally also in the same business. (We actually started in children’s books at the same time, my first book published when she became an editorial assistant. But that is another story).

We had never worked together on anything before, and this seemed like the perfect project (especially as she is in it). We went through many revisions over the next six or so months and Alvina finally brought it to pub committee. She gave an impassioned speech for it, and it went through with flying colors (and I did a happy dance).

The only thing was that since it was about the Chinese Year of the Dog, they wanted the book to come out for Chinese New Year. So it was a little bit of a rush-but I didn’t mind. I hate the waiting in between creation and publication.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The biggest writing hurdle was crossing over from being picture book writer to a novel writer. The first time Alvina sent back my manuscript she wrote on it, “You need to add at least three descriptions per page.” That was because I hadn’t written any! I was so used to having pictures tell that part of the story, it was a challenge to paint the images in words.

Psychologically, having a first novel published is a fingernail-biting experience. All of my books are a part of me, but this book, because of all the details and family history shared, is more than any of the other. While I have slowly developed a thicker skin for criticism on my picture books, I’m on pins-and-needles about this novel. Just crossing my fingers that people like it and it makes some sort of splash.